After John had been arrested, Jesus went into Galilee. There he proclaimed the Good News from God. ‘The time has come,’ he said, ‘and the kingdom of God is close at hand. Repent, and believe the Good News.’
As he was walking along by the Sea of Galilee he saw Simon and his brother Andrew casting a net in the lake – for they were fishermen. And Jesus said to them, ‘Follow me and I will make you fishers of men.’ And at once they left their nets and followed him. Going on a little further, he saw James, son of Zebedee and his brother John; they too were in their boat, mending their nets. He called them at once and leaving their father Zebedee in the boat with the men he employed, they went after him. –Mark 1:14-20
And when we arrived in the region of Jerusalem, in the month of flowers, our good emissary led and brought us inside Jerusalem. And its nobles and rulers were disturbed and troubled, and they asked us: “On account of what cause have you come here? Perhaps because of the mysteries of your magianism?” because they saw us looking up at heaven, and worshiping our sign, and praying to our guide, because they did not understand our mysteries and they reckoned us as magi. And we said to them: “We saw a sign of heavenly majesty in our land, as we were instructed by our fathers, that a king, and a messiah, and a life-giver, and a savior who gives himself to death for the sake of the entire world has been born here. And we have come because we saw all his signs and the forms of his hidden divinity in the appearance of a human clothed with a body. And we came, rejoicing with our pure gifts, which were deposited by our fathers in the Cave of Treasures of Hidden Mysteries on the Mountain of Victories. And he commanded us in a great vision to come to this land to worship him in reverence, because he has worshipers in every country. He becomes for them a life-giver, and a savior, and a forgiver of sins, and through him the Lord of all is pleased with his creation and makes atonement with his people.” —RevMagi 17:1-6
“Nothing has been more marked in the whole movement since the Reformation than the process of secularisation which has extended itself to the whole of life. Not only in thought but in action, large territories have been withdrawn from the control of the Church. The ecclesiastic may still be mightier in politics than is assumed, but the theory at least is the direction of limiting his interference, and, in the public life of the community, his help is accepted in the capacity of a citizen not of an ecclesiastic. This process is even forwarded by many, not with the intention of eliminating the sacred from life, but of including the whole of life within its operation. With this has gone another phenomenon, significant of all the rest — the much slighter bond between the definitely religious life and the visible ecclesiastical organisation. One of two things it must prove. Mankind is leaving school either from disregard to learning, or from regard to life; either to forget its lessons, or to begin rightly to understand them by an independent application of them to reality. Towards this secularisation of thought and action every religious teacher must determine his attitude, for of the fact there can be no dispute, and that it involves important issues of some kind can hardly be questioned. Is it religion or only religious observance that is at stake; the power of godliness to control life or only the power of the clergy to control opinion? –John Oman, The Problem of Faith and Freedom
My sermon title this morning poses an immediate and troubling question for many of us. John Oman recognizes the trouble when he states that while the church person may be mightier in politics than is assumed, the theory is in the limiting of such interference. The great commissioning, as this charge is called, is presumptuous. It presumes precisely where we should be humble.
I met with my brass quintet last week for the first time since getting sick. It was good fun to play together again and good fun to be with a group of friends who are not from the church. No offense, of course, to any of you, its simply a fact that having friends from other areas of one’s life is good. As we were wrapping up, having just discussed how often this “Quintet for Fun” would get together, the horn player commented on how nice it was to have friends in the clergy. And then laughingly adding that you get access to a church building. Whereupon the tuba player chimed in — “especially one that doesn’t try to save your soul!”
This is true — while I care that my friends, including you, are well with your soul, as that great hymn puts it, I care to care in a way that elevates value, in a way that adds to the beauty of the world, and not in a way that takes from these things (although if you had heard us practicing that night you might think otherwise). John Oman’s words that we read today are germane, for the issue is not simply my wish to deny the special role sometimes accorded clergy in our society, but the acknowledgment that true freedom experiences the role of the sacred in life — and not the sacred apart from it.
The great commissioning is troublesome for the fact that it has been read as the end above all other ends, regardless of the means used to get there. Sometimes those means are plainly destructive. Even more painful to me, is that that some Christians ignore these destructive means, because the sacred is apart from this world of cause and effect and what we do in this world to attain the other does not matter. But if I think that what I do in this world does matter, if that is even a precondition for us some of us being a Christian, then the question must be, in this diverse world, can I so understand Jesus’ call to repent and believe, can I get mixed up in this Jesus business and remain opposed to the great commissioning? I think the answer is yes. And more, I think that the answer is yes because of the nature of the God whom Jesus re-presents to us in the Gospels.
When Jesus went down to the lakeshore and found there a few followers from among the many fishermen, did he simply walk down and proclaim that he was God’s son, come to save them from their sins, and expect them to follow? The texts do not give us enough information to know exactly what Jesus said before he said “Follow me and I will make you fishers of men.” But it is significant that both Matthew and Mark preface there telling of this story with Jesus’ announcement about the kingdom of heaven and the need to repent.
To understand this prefacing, we need to back up a moment hear how this statement might have been received by a Galilean fisherman 2000 years ago.
Perhaps because of the centuries of oppression by foreign occupiers, the Jewish people had developed a kind of literature known as apocalypticism. This apocalyptic literature had elements of scripture, but it was clearly a separate phenomena from what we know today as the Old Testament.
Apocalypticism was a religious movement that looked to this literature for some clues about when the end of their sufferings would finally dawn. In this literature the still hidden course of things to come is revealed in order to inform believers of what will happen in the near future.
Whether apocalypticism was your thing or not — its language was part of culture, that much has not changed! The thing that has changed over the course of those 2000 years is that our world view has switched from mythological to scientific. What I mean by that is that before we understood that our earth was but one small, hardly unique planet among hundreds of thousands, the we understood our history in terms of ages, or aeons — the current aeon which was evil, and the one to come that would be eternal and beneficent because it would by the one in which God would rule.
From the apocalyptic worldview, humans have a responsibility in the present age to create the circumstances necessary for the turn of the aeon. In the time of Jesus, people were convinced that God had given the laws required of people to create those circumstances. Jews lived under considerable anxiety about this circumstance, because they would be judged for their fulfillment of the law. This judgment would be the deciding factor of their admission into the kingdom of heaven.
The imminence of the next aeon could be expressed with the metaphor of a drinking cup that is filled with time. If it is full, then the time is fulfilled and God would usher in the new kingdom.
From a theological perspective this meant that the law was god. They directly confronted only the law. The law was what they set their hearts on; it was what shaped them. And to the extent that they understood themselves in the same evil aeon, they still had time left, they could still create the conditions necessary for their acceptance into the new aeon.
But if we look carefully at the text, we see that Mark, and Matthew with him, reverses the order. Jesus announces that the cup is filled. There is no more time left. Here, at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry he makes a new theological statement. The old theological statement was that the law was god and required anxious action — the new statement is that God is the one who invites our re-action to the offer of the kingdom now. The meaning of repent, then, in this passage is simply to accept.
In fact, from a translation standpoint, we should find a better word. Repent implies precisely the old theological vision that anxious work is required of the disciple. To repent is to engage in an action we must do. But the verb would be better translated a bit more literally — to see from a new perspective. God offers a present kingdom, a way to live free of anxiety — we are to turn our faces in a new direction so that we might see it and accept it.
A moment ago, I suggested that more happened between Jesus’ announcement of the new aeon and the call to follow him down by the lakeshore than is written. And now we know what that “more” must have been. One does not see the world from a new perspective except through a realization by personal engagement that the new perspective makes a difference. Unless we hold to a magical or supernatural intervention, Andrew and James would have no reason to suddenly leave their boats and livelihoods. A conversation must have happened in during which these two fishermen were led to trustingly rely on this good news that we just talked about.
One does not change one’s livelihood simply on the promise to provide an interesting life — one changes one’s way of life, however, when another way answers the question of our heart’s longing — to know that I am a freely loved, to know that my acceptance does not depend on my having to perform a task which is impossible. To answer the call of Jesus is to respond to his question, with, as I put it a few weeks ago an answer that has always already existed. To be free to answer the question of life with a full heart and a full mind, to love and be loved with out the anxiety of whether that love is right or acceptable — that is the moment when one’s perspective shifts, that is the moment when it is possible to lay everything down and say “Here I am.”
I am guilty — I have no doubt — of making this more complicated than it is. Jesus’ is a question anyone can answer. And to the degree that we avoid the prevailing dogma and rules that have become a part of what Christianity has morphed to become, we make religion the important thing and not the religious observance; we offer the power of the love of God, and the ability to un-anxiously love God, as of a piece of life itself, and not as the part of life to control behavior and opinion. Will you set the worship of your heart on the ground laid out by these controlling rules, or will you turn about now and be free of such restrictions so that you can love now?
The magi, as they bore witness to the newborn one who would invite people on this journey to fuller horizons, encountered the skeptics. “How can you, who are the evil magi, have any knowledge of the good Messiah?” How, after all, could they know anything about how full the cup is? They don’t know the rules. Despite these anxious naysayers, they carried on in their journey, unswayed by the blind and anxious refusal to let go, to simply announce what they know. They would not go any further than that , they would put no spin on it, but would simply announce it as fact.
And what do they announce, these foreigners to the Jewish apocalyptic world view? They proclaim that the new aeon has come — look for yourselves. And then they offer this marvelous litany of ways to look: We saw signs that a king, a messiah, and a life-giver, and a savior has been born. He becomes [for us] a life-giver, and a savior, and a forgiver of sins, and through him the Lord of all is pleased with his creation.”
There is no single, proper way, or words to use to describe this fact. We can live as Christians in a world of many nations and even bear witness to this life-changing, point of view altering fact, without trouble because the language we use is fluid, and that simply means that simply means that God’s realm comes in peace. Amen.